This is how the Magyar Rádió’s 5:30 p.m. news began. It was an allusion to the chaos created on Friday by one of the trade unions at MÁV when its leader, István Gaskó, announced a surprise strike of unspecified duration. The strike was short: it started at 3 a.m. and by noon it was "suspended," allegedly because of the renewed negotiations. Short it was but the chaos was great because, unlike earlier times, Gaskó refused to give sufficient time for preparation. The information about the strike didn’t even reach most people, and MÁV serves about 200,000 passengers daily. Now it seems that there will be a repeat performance.
I must say that I neglected this whole topic in the past. Here and there I mentioned Gaskó’s name in connection with a failed demonstration and his ventures into politics (meeting Viktor Orbán in connection with the health care reforms), but otherwise I didn’t say much about him and his union. One reason for this silence is my relative ignorance about Hungarian trade unions. Considering how few people actually belong to trade unions, the system of trade unions is exceedingly complicated. In Hungary there are SIX conglomerations (associations?) of trade unions. István Gaskó seems to be the head of one of these, the LIGA or by its full name Független Szakszervezetek Demokratikus Ligája (Democratic League of Independent Trade Unions). According to the homepage of LIGA, one of their larger affiliated trade unions is the VDSzSz (Vasúti Dolgozók Szabad Szakszervezete = Free Trade Union of Railway Workers) whose chief is again István Gaskó. LIGA is made up of several trade unions, including the fairly active PDSz (Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete = Democratic Trade Union of Teachers) which, however, serves only a small minority of teachers. Gaskó’s VDSzSz is but one of the trade unions active at MÁV. Nonetheless, it is capable of paralyzing rail service.
While the last time, in the middle of December, Gaskó gave the health care bill as the reason for the strike, this time he decided to stick with economic demands. All the other trade unions of MÁV accepted a 6.9% raise for next year. Gaskó is holding out for much more (details later in this post).
And he has another, rather unusual demand. Perhaps you will recall that at the very beginning of January Hungary managed to sell MÁV’s freight division (MÁV-Cargo) to the Austrian State Railways for very good money: 102.5 billion forints. Mr. Gaskó got a brilliant idea: why shouldn’t the employees of MÁV receive some of this money? A mere 250,000 Ft net per head. Considering that there are 40,000 employees, this is a hefty sum. (If my math is right, it seems he’s asking the company to "tithe.") Since MÁV loses billions and billions every year, it can’t afford to give away money received from the sale of MÁV-Cargo.
Back to the issue of employee compensation. MÁV was broken up recently to form three separate but affiliated companies. MÁV-Start takes care of passenger service, MÁV-Trakció (Traction) hauling, and MÁV-Gépészet (Machinery) maintenance of the locomotives and passenger cars. (Don’t ask me what Traction is all about. What they haul and how it’s different from the freight division.) In any case, Cargo, Trakció and Gépészet came into being only in December, but MÁV-Start was formed already in July. Gaskó, in addition to the 6.9% raise agreed to by the other unions, demands a 10% raise for all employees of these affiliated companies. That is, he’s aiming for a 16.9% increase! In the case of Start the extra 10% raise should be retroactive all the way back to July. MÁV’s management has flatly refused to accede to these demands.
They negotiated on Saturday and Sunday without any agreement. MÁV finds the demands unrealistic and claims it simply cannot afford them. So Gaskó again announced a strike of undetermined duration starting at 3:00 a.m. Monday morning. But MÁV this time is a bit better prepared: they have been negotiating with the state bus company, Volán, and BKV (Budapest Közlekedési Vállalat = Budapest Transport Company) to accept season ticket holders on their vehicles. Gaskós earlier attempts all ended in failure, but obviously he is not deterred. Meanwhile he hasn’t given up his fight against health reform either. The LIGA is collecting signatures for another referendum, this time against the entire reform. They need 200,000 signatures. Apparently, they already have 160,000.
One interesting tidbit. Mr. Gaskó gets his very substantial salary not from the trade union but from MÁV. He refuses to divulge how much. Surely this unusual arrangement harks back to socialist days, but then the trade unions were not really trade unions and they never struck either. Another thing that I find odd is that I never hear of the membership actually voting on either the beginning or the end of a strike. I wonder what the membership would say if they were asked.